Understanding Cattle Behaviour on Small Farms

An understanding of animal behaviour is very important as the greater your knowledge the better your ability to predict an animals response. Whilst some handlers have a natural ability for many the skills are gained from observation and practice. Over time you will also learn to be instinctive and sense when they are ill, distressed or hungry and know what their signs are. Remember that cattle are also clever and can learn to be very cunning. One of the world’s leading experts on cattle behaviour is Dr Temple Grandin who points out that fear memories in cattle can never be deleted only reduced so never punish fearful behaviour instead reinforce and reward behaviour you want.

Human Interaction

The more you interact with your cattle the quieter they will become and the younger you start the better so long as this interaction has positive memories for them. If every time you go out to the paddock you yell, shout and whack them with a stick then they will automatically take off to the other side of the paddock to avoid you. If on the other hand you move gently, talk to them quietly and offer them some reward, such as a biscuit of hay, each time you go to visit you will soon find that they will be eager to see you and come running towards you. They will learn to recognise your voice and even your vehicle. It is much easier to muster cattle by calling them rather than having to chase them into the yard.

You must also be firm with your cattle as they are used to being dominated. If they head butt you, smack them to let them know this is unacceptable behaviour. How many times have we seen a tiny calf at a show start to head butt the children after a few days of continual patting much to the public’s amusement. If this behaviour is left unchecked then that young calf will grow up thinking that is acceptable and I can assure you it won’t be so funny when he is a fully grown 500-600kg bull.

Herd Dominance

Within a mob there is always an order of dominance, often seen in action at water or feed troughs where certain animals are always first to drink or eat. More timid animals will stand back until the others have finished. This order of dominance can cause stress especially when the animals are confined in small spaces such as yards, feedlots and trucks. This is why whenever you mix cattle into new groups there will always be some fighting which will allow them to once again work out the pecking order and establish their very defined social dominance order. Females don’t seem to take so long to work out the order and the more timid females learn to keep their distance.

Young bulls likewise soon learn that older bulls are very definitely the boss but be careful with senior bulls. Often they will fight until one is seriously hurt sometimes resulting in severe damage such as broken legs or shoulders. So don’t put older bulls of similar age and weight in together they will just keep fighting until one has assumed dominance and this is often to the detriment of the other bull.  Bulls can be uncontrollable and highly aroused when fighting and also totally oblivious to anything else around them so keep your distance and don’t jump in to try and separate them or you may end up with serious injury. Overcrowding often causes problems and as such, it is recommended that large breed bulls in yards be allowed six metres or more of personal space.

Know the signs: Learn to recognise and understand the signs that cattle make. If they are cranky they will swish their tail from side to side, they will also dig up dirt with their front feet, they will hold their head up and stare at you and sometime snort if you get to close. Watch their ears as well as cattle are very sensitive to sound so these are a good sign. One golden rule is never stare cattle down. Back off and don’t invade their personal space which will allow them to calm down.

Protective Mothers

Always be careful of cows and newborn calves, especially those that have calved for the first time, no matter how well you think you know them. They will protect their calves from all intruders so be careful when you rush in to pick up or pat a new born.  Assess the cow, talk to her quietly and watch her to see if she will let you get close to her baby. Move slowly and calmly. She will give you some very serious signs if she is going to try and stop you by charging at you. Sometimes they are just bluff but be warned sometimes they are not. Watch her eyes the whole time. Remember she is only doing what she instinctively knows so don’t confuse this with bad temperament. Try to keep dogs away from cows that are calving as cows will often react very strongly to any type of dog nearing their young irrespective of where you are. Often they will tolerate you but nothing or no one else. This type of behaviour is generally not a major issue with small breeds, due to the large amount of human interaction, but there are exceptions to every rule.

Hiding their Babies

Most cows will hide their newborn for the first couple of days away from the remainder of the herd until they are strong enough to interact with the other members of the herd. They will ‘plant’ them in tufts of long grass or under a shady tree coming back to feed them a drink of milk when necessary. Some mothers will remain quite close by whilst others will leave them there all day only returning in the evening to give them a drink.

 It would be impossible to count the number of hours that I and my good friend and neighbour Jack, have spent looking for newborn calves. I have walked acres of paddocks from one end to the other knowing the cow has hidden her calf somewhere but being unable to find them. Cows have deliberately led me in the opposite direction, totally ignored me when I have imitated their calf call, or pretended they can’t find their calf either. The best way to make sure she (and you) have found her newborn is to wait until evening as she will eventually track it down to give it a drink before the sun sets.

If you are concerned and you think a cow has lost her charge check to see if she is restless and continually bellowing out to her calf and also check her udder to see how bagged up with milk she is. If she has not fed it for a while her udder will be tight and perhaps even leaking milk.  Sometimes a calf will get out under a fence, fall down into a gully or become lost due to a sudden disturbance that has made it run off in the wrong direction. A good indication is that the cow will become very distressed and usually won’t give up bellowing until she has found it either.

One extremely hot humid February I had calves suffering from dehydration due to the fact that their mothers were leaving them alone all day with out a drink. The solution was to find the calves at about lunch time, get them on their feet so their mothers could see them and then make the mothers return to give them a drink. To prevent this happening again I changed my autumn calving period to begin on 1st March, rather than the 1st February which had always been the case in previous years.

Day Care

Cattle being herd animals have devised an ingenious system of day care. The system works wherein one or two females are left in charge of the nursery for the day, or part thereof, allowing the other mums to go off and graze. Large herds of cattle will often have two day care centres in separate parts of the paddock depending on the herd’s social structure. This day care centre will normally be under the shade of a large tree or some other protected place in the paddock.

The babies are normally booked in the late morning and the mothers come and go, depending on the calf’s age, to give them a drink. Each day the carers are rotated ensuring that all mums get a break but more importantly are able to graze adequately. It works extremely effectively. Cows with newborns may often take a couple of days before they decide to use the day care facilities. As mentioned previously they will keep their newborns close by and away from the rest of the herd until they are strong on their feet.

Figure 1: The day care system. These two cows were baby sitting eight calves under the shade of a large tree.

Moving and Handling

Knowing and understanding the natural instincts and common behaviour of cattle is the basis of handling cattle. As such everybody should learn and understand the principles of low stress stock handling. It’s not rocket science its just pure common sense and may require a change in attitude about how stock should be handled. Good stock handlers are calm and able to move quietly whilst maintaining control of their stock. They are also able to understand the social behaviour of cattle which will vary depending on breed, species, age and sex.

Cattle like to be moved in mobs and they don’t like to be singled out. Cattle also like to keep other cattle in sight and because they have a field view of 330 degrees they can see from almost all directions.  If you need to draft some cattle out from a paddock it is often much easier to bring them all into the yards and do so from there than trying to draft them out from the rest of the herd in the middle of the paddock.  If you have one animal that continually runs out of the mob or is a nut case then get rid of them, as they will teach the other cattle bad habits. Don’t go wildly chasing animals that break away as more often than not, if left alone, they will try and return to the mob or the yards.

Last year I attended an induction day for exhibitors to witness the weighing in of their cattle for one of the most significant hoof and hook competitions held in the state. There were over 100 head and numerous handlers to weigh, tag and draft the various animals. There was no evidence of any low stress stock handling principles being employed and as such most of the cattle were in a high state of arousal. This is due to the fact they had all come from different properties and were being yarded together for the first time, they were being worked in unfamiliar yards with far too much noise, and they were being weighed, ear tagged and injected all making the experience most unpleasant. During the course of the day someone accidentally left a gate open and two of the steers escaped. The commotion, by so called professional cattlemen, that followed this escape had to be seen to be believed. They were hollering, yelling, chasing, banging gates and making so much noise that, not surprisingly, the two animals took off to the scrub country and have never to this day been found. A financial loss I’m sure the exhibitors could have done without.  If those so called cowboys had quietly left the steers on the outside of the yards to calm down they would have easily been able to bring them back in without any problems.

Learn to Understand the Flight Zone

The flight zone is the distance an animal will allow a person to approach before moving away. It is the animal’s imaginary safety zone that surrounds the animal and awareness of the flight zone around cattle is essential. If this space is invaded cattle will try to escape and they also like to turn and face that pressure if it becomes too much. The flight zone is bigger when an animal is excited or stressed. Minimising stress when moving stock is all about applying the right amount of pressure and then releasing it.

An animals’ flight zone is determined by three factors: genetics (temperament), amount of human contact and the quality of that human contact. Animals, which are handled roughly or irregularly, will have a much larger flight zone than those that are handled gently and regularly. Usually the flight distance is about 2–3 body lengths, but this will vary depending on an animal’s past experience with humans. For wild or feral cattle it maybe 200-300 metres, while for feedlot cattle one to five metres and very tame cattle, such as your show team, will no longer have a flight zone. Sometimes very tame animals that no longer have a flight zone can be difficult to work with in yards as they have no fear and will try to do exactly as they please.

Learn to understand an animal’s point of balance: Cattle have what is called ‘a point of balance’ which is about level with their shoulder. This is where the animal will move neither forwards nor backwards if approached. If you move in front of their shoulder they will go backwards and if you move behind their shoulder they will go forwards. This applies to all cattle whether when you are working in the yards, in the race or in the paddock. You will see this works very effectively in the race when you want the cattle to move forwards.  By just walking slowly and directly towards the cattle, about one metre away from the rails, whilst moving in a straight line will encourage them all to move forwards as you past their point of balance.

Cattle move more effectively if they can see the handler at all times which is why it is important to avoid standing directly behind cattle as they will naturally turn to see to you. The most effective angle is to have the handler situated at a 45-60 degrees angle from a line perpendicular to the animal’s shoulder or point of balance. The same principles apply to moving small groups or large mobs of cattle. They will have a collective flight zone and when the handler penetrates that zone they will move forward. By entering and then releasing the pressure the cattle will continue to move forward.

Shoulder point of balance

Stand on line and beast does not move


Moving Behind Shoulder Point of Balance

Move behind the shoulder line and beast will move forward


Moving In Front of Shoulder Point of Balance

If this occurs on the fence the beast will move backwards, with no fence beast will move away.

Yard Techniques

Once you have brought the animals into the yards give them some time to calm down especially if they are in high state of arousal. This should be approximately 20 to 30 minutes.

Consider the features of the animals you are working with such as the breed, size and temperament, do they have horns, are they males or females and are there cows and calves or cycling heifers and bulls?  Horned cattle are considered more dangerous than polled cattle, bulls are usually more aggressive than females especially if there are cycling females in the yards with them. This is because their mind is on other things rather than moving through the yards and doing as you wish. Cows with calves are also more protective in the yards as their young get lost and mixed up and they and the calves can get quite distressed.

Cattle should move easily through the yards and enter the single file race without hesitating. If the cattle baulk and refuse to move then try and work out what it is that they don’t like.  Perhaps the entrance to the race is too dark, the sun is blinding them so they can’t see, there are dogs in front of them, too many shadows, there is a change in the type of flooring, a hat or coat on a fence, some chain or a piece of string hanging down. Little things that you may not have even thought of but if you get down into the race and get a cow’s eye view you will probably find the problem. Cattle don’t like the dark or shadows, they like to see light, and so this is particularly important when designing races and crush areas.

We had to eliminate some problems in our system. The cattle would easily walk up the race but always had problems going into the crush. The crush has a roof over it so the problem was that the cattle were going from a race in open daylight into the crush that is dark with often a lot of shadows. Firstly we put some rubber belting on the side of the race to make it dark as well and extended the roof to eliminate some of the shadows. We also found that by keeping the head bail open it allowed cattle to see out the other side which would encourage them to walk into the crush. Once educated then the latter was not necessary but for our more flightily commercial cattle it helped them learn to walk into the crush.

The crowding of cattle will also increase aggression as their personal space is invaded. Don’t overcrowd the yard but instead half fill it and you and you will be able to move the stock much faster and more efficiently. Temple Grandin reports that some of the biggest abattoirs in the USA have been able to completely eliminate the use of electric stock prods by learning to handle cattle in small groups and not overcrowding them.

Don’t yell at cattle and use high pitched noises as their hearing is significantly more sensitive than ours in both pitch and range so voices should not be raised. If you wish to move them try using a flag on the end of a stick instead.  Just waving the stick out to the side, remembering that cattle have excellent 330 degrees vision, is very effective. Banging gates, shouting and yelling all add to their stress levels.

There is no need to hit your animals when working them in the yards. Once again a flag or a stick in front of them will suffice. Continually prodding them can cause them to kick and serious injury to the handler.

Cattle look in the direction they are about to move so by keeping your eyes on their eyes you will be able to predict which direction they are about to move in. They also like to follow each other so the sight of a beast in front of them keeps them moving forward. Once you have the mob moving forward then you should stay on the edge of the flight zone and enter it only when cattle stop moving. As soon as they start to move again then you should move out of the flight zone. Problems occur when the handler stays within the flight zone when the cattle have no route ahead causing them to turn back and break away.

If an animal baulks at a gateway, going into a crush or onto a truck take it calmly and give it time to have a look and assess the situation. Don’t rush them.

Cattle can be taught quickly and easily to enter the crush by gentle education. If at first they won’t move then tap them on the rear. If the animal refuses after being tapped then twist their tail. But the moment they take one step toward the crush immediately release the tail. The principle is to reward them for moving forward by instantly releasing the pressure. The same principle applies with tapping them on the rear as once they move forward then you immediately stop tapping them.

Cattle have excellent memories and will always remember painful or unpleasant experiences. Therefore their first experience in a new set of yards should be a pleasant one. Don’t try and tattoo or dehorn them on their first time in a new set of yards or facilities. Instead allow them to walk quietly through once or twice before catching them in the crush as this will help reduce their stress levels. If an animal’s first experience in the yard is bad then it will always associate the yards with unpleasant experiences.  These practices may initially seem more time consuming but they will save you hours and hours over the years.

Other interesting behavioural facts:

  • Cattle can only recognise two colours which are blue and yellow.
  • Fine cannon boned animals tend to scare more easily.
  • Hair whirls (little twists of hair) found high on the head can indicate bad temperament.
  • Hair whirls found low in the head means a calm temperament.
  • Whirls that are wider than the width of their eyes seem relate to semen quality.
    (Source: Temple Grandin)

Tip: Don’t try and move or work with stock during the hottest part of the day, especially in the middle of summer. They will be reluctant to move from their shade and if made to do so they can very easily, especially the young calves, suffer from heat stress.

Want to Learn More About Small Cattle for Small farms?

Further information is contained in the book Small Cattle for Small Farms. To purchase a copy click on the image below.

About the Author?

Margo Hayes has been involved with a small breed of cattle, Australian Lowline, for 12 years and more recently RedLine and has shown the Grand Champion Australian Lowline Bull at the Royal Brisbane Show for eight consecutive years, the Grand Champion Carcass at the Royal Brisbane Show in 2008 and recently written a book titled Small Cattle for Small Farms.

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